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Employers that do background checks that come back negative should be able to rely on their good-faith efforts to prevent harm to employees and others. After all, employers should only be liable for harm they reasonably could expect would happen.

Recent case: A high school senior complained that one of her teachers had been sexually harassing her since her sophomore year. The school district investigated her claim and the teacher quit. He pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Then the student sued the school district, claiming it was responsible for psychological damage because it hadn’t done enough to prevent the harassment.

The evidence showed that the school district conducted a background investigation on all new hires. The check on the teacher in question came back negative. His previous employers reported he had been a satisfactory teacher, and he said he had never been charged with a crime.

Plus, the school district showed it had a sexual harassment policy and provided regular teacher training on sexual harassment and why it wouldn’t be tolerated.

The student argued that it was well known among other students that the teacher spoke in sexually explicit terms when he frequently talked about his marriage. She also argued that if the teachers’ sexual harassment training had been more rigorous, her teacher might not have harassed her.

In the end, the court dismissed the case, concluding the school district wasn’t liable for the sexual harassment when the background check it conducted gave no reason to believe the teacher would become a harasser. The court also cited the anti-harassment training as evidence of good faith. And it said students’ knowledge of the teacher’s frank talk didn’t mean school administrators knew. (Singer v. Las Virgenes Unified School District, No. B211934, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2010)

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